Democracy vs populism in Tunisia: Responsibility and what happens next

Democracy vs populism in Tunisia: Responsibility and what happens next
Opinion: After Kais Saied’s presidential power grab – widely described as a coup against the constitution - democratic forces in Tunisia should learn from what happened, and prevent the rise of dictatorship, writes Azmi Bishara.
8 min read
29 Jul, 2021
Security forces have occupied the Tunisian parliament building [Getty]

This is part 3 in a three-part series of opinion pieces written by Dr Azmi Bishara on the recent events in Tunisia. Read part 1 here, and part 2 here.

There is currently a debate regarding who is responsible for the rise of populism in Tunisia, President Kais Saied's coup against the constitution, and what he is planning.

I have written several times before warning of negative phenomena affecting the Tunisian public's view of democracy. Among these are the movement of members of parliament between political parties - or "party tourism" as it’s known in Tunisia - as they look for personal gain and positions. Political parties which do not represent any position, ideology, or cause have also been created; these parties are only established because of how easy it is to create them.

"There is the impression that democracy has no prestige and does not defend itself. There is a party in the Tunisian parliament which loudly announces that its goal is to destroy democracy"

There have also been rapidly shifting deals between political parties reached on a tactical basis without any proclaimed strategy, and unproven accusations traded between politicians simply for the purpose of slandering opponents. In addition, talk of corruption, nepotism, and other negative aspects of politics for the purpose of defaming others is exaggerated. Even though in some cases there is a clear basis for these accusations, their constant repetition and application to all politicians puts the public off and creates the impression that all politicians are corrupt.

This is not true.

Finally, there is the impression that democracy has no prestige and does not defend itself. There is a party in the Tunisian parliament which loudly announces that it supports the old regime and that its goal is to destroy democracy. It engages in hooliganism in parliament in order to ruin the image of pluralist democracy, with the witting or unwitting collusion of the Tunisian media, which has been accused of sensationalism.

With the exception of the last, all these phenomena are present in any democracy. In all democracies, live media broadcasts from parliament has encouraged populism in the speeches of elected representatives and in the reactions of the public. In all democracies, deals and coalitions are reached between political parties for the purposes of governance and opposition. But democracy is new in Tunisia and the public is not yet used to this system, and the political forces which support a democratic system should have shown more responsibility.

Elections without restrictions and the free political environment have not only allowed both supporters and opponents of the 2011 revolution to enter into a political game, they have also opened the door to adventurers and eccentrics to influence the system, as well as the media and media-like organisations.


A democratic constitution without adequate protection

Tunisia's constitution, which has established a mixed government system, has also complicated the picture. It was originally intended to establish a parliamentary system of government but in the end elements of a presidential system were introduced. A constitutional court is necessary in any democracy. But in a mixed quasi-presidential system as complicated as the one in Tunisia its presence becomes even more urgent and its absence is a catastrophe.

Without a court like this protecting the constitution, interpreting its stipulations, and the limits of the authority of the president, government, and parliament, the constitution's main elements could turn into a Trojan horse against the parliamentary system. This didn’t happen when a responsible and rational president like Beji Caid Essebsi - whatever reservations we may have about his positions and life history - was in power. But with the assumption of the presidency by a person who is against democracy, this possibility became a real and present danger.

The presidential system of government in Arab countries is tyrannical. Some people hold the view that a strong presidency is needed in multi-ethnic and multi-confessional Arab countries because sectarian power-sharing could tear apart the unity of a parliamentary system of government.

But Tunisia is a homogenous country ethnically and religiously and there is no propensity there for splitting power on the basis of sectarian or ethnic identity. A parliamentary system is its best option after long decades of tyrannical personal rule. But its constitution has been adopted and it is democratic constitution as worthy as the constitutions of the most deep-rooted democracies and it must be protected by a constitutional court.

Presidential systems, coups, and the threat to democracy

The danger of a presidential system becomes apparent in states whose institutions have become used to receiving orders from a despotic ruler. Tunisian public institutions obeyed President Kais Saied's orders when he violated the constitution, despite political and social forces not just disagreeing him but talking with varying degrees of criticism about the difference between his deeds and words.

The ruling political parties in Tunisia are also responsible of course for what has happened, as are the populist critics who have exploited the unpopularity of responsible and necessary measures. When dealing with economic and social problems governments sometimes have to take unpopular measures. In these cases, the strength and solidity of a democratic system of government are tested and populist criticism becomes one of the main obstacles to its proper functioning.

All the coup d’etats in history and the most important right-wing theoretical works justifying fascist dictatorship have been based on incitement against parliament

In Tunisia, parties with a majority in parliament have not governed for the past two years. No one party has a majority. They have instead supported technocratic governments without party representation. Parliament as a result looked like an arena for chatter and arguments without any real role, making it easy for it to be discredited by a president who was openly opposed to the constitution and elements within the parliament opposed to democracy who took on the role of permanent hooligans.

The Ennahda movement did not gain anything, but instead lost, by its chairmanship of a parliament where the majority parties did not govern the country. Saied's conflict with parliament looked like a conflict with Ennahda when in fact it was a conflict over authority.

All the coups d'etat in history and the most important right-wing theoretical works justifying fascist dictatorship have been based on incitement against parliament. Some of them were written by jurists such as Carl Schmitt in the run-up to the rise of Nazism. Schmitt would use phrases like "conspiracies in darkened rooms" to describe the workings of the parliament of the Weimar Republic.

These works have glorified presidential systems as representing the unity of sovereignty, rather than its division, and according to Schmitt their most important expression is the ability to declare an emergency. For Schmitt, the emergency is permanent because the state is always in imminent danger. The results of these ideas in Germany is well known.

Responsibility and confronting the coup

It’s important for political actors to hold themselves accountable and assume responsibility. This applies to the parties who contributed to the rise of populism among the Tunisian public, whether they were corrupted in their ideas or made tactical mistakes. They need to draw lessons from what happened. But the most urgent task now is to confront the plans of those who carried out the coup against the constitution. The coup was preceded by the announcement of a fake assassination plot against Saied and political speeches given in military barracks and so on. No democrat can ignore this task or use the coup to gain advantage over political rivals.

Among Tunisian political elites phrases like "no one knows what is in the mind of the president" and "we are waiting for his next steps – we don’t know what they are" are circulating. These expressions are associated with dictatorships run from darkened rooms (the phrase is appropriate here). Only in dictatorial regimes does everything depend on unknown thoughts in the mind of a president.

"The system of government in Tunisia is not presidential and the constitution is not a fig-leaf for a dictatorship"

It’s impossible to defend a democracy while repeating phrases like this. Instead, political forces should demand that Saied immediately clarifies what he wants to do. This needs to be brought up and discussed in parliament, the media, and other forums. The system of government in Tunisia is not presidential and the constitution is not a fig-leaf for a dictatorship. Democratic forces must do more than wait for what the president will do - they should make plans for the immediate future and announce them.

In Tunisia there is a vibrant political and civil society and functioning institutions supporting democracy, as well as a people suffering from many problems and disappointments. The people are therefore vulnerable to populist messaging but they have tasted freedom and human and civil rights. This could become a source of pride integral to national identity and it is a good foundation for opponents of the coup to talk to the people.


Azmi Bishara is a Palestinian intellectual, academic and writer. Follow him on Twitter: @AzmiBishara

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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This is an edited translation of what first appeared as a post on Dr. Bishara's Facebook page. To read the original text click here.

Translated by Rose Chacko